UCLA Bruins on road to irrelevance in Chip Kelly's first season

In Chip Kelly's first season as head coach, the Bruins are off to their worst start since 1943. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

PASADENA, Calif. -- Watching from the Rose Bowl as the sun disappears behind the San Gabriel Mountains is one of the great viewing experiences in American sports. It's awe-inspiring and during a football game has the rare ability to elevate a moment's sense of importance. Usually, that's a good thing.

On Saturday, though, all it did was magnify the disappointment in the beginning of the Chip Kelly era at UCLA. Even with No. 10 Washington in town, the stadium never appeared to reach half its capacity and when UCLA scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 24-17, the student section had already mostly cleared out. The optics were bad; the game felt unimportant. This Bruins team, the students decided, wasn't worth burning an entire Saturday night on.

It was the type of scenario an athletic director expects to avoid by landing the most coveted coach on the market and handing him a five-year, $23.3 million contract.

Those who stuck around saw UCLA play some of its best football of the season, but that didn't mean much when the 31-24 loss signified the program's worst start (0-5) since 1943.

"We didn't high-five in the locker room and say, 'Hey we got close against a really good team,' and they are a really good team," Kelly said. "I'm not a guy that gets solace in, 'We were close.' That's not us. Close isn't good. Close is bad."

If close is bad, then the first five games of Kelly's tenure have been a disaster. The Bruins have already lost more conference games this year (two) than Kelly did in any of his four seasons as the head coach at Oregon, where he compiled a 46-7 record from 2009-12 and lost only four games during his final three seasons.

His time at Oregon is what made Kelly such an attractive coach at the college level, so in that respect, it's fair to measure how he performs at UCLA with what he did there. But it's also important to keep in mind the significant differences of the two situations.

In Eugene, Kelly was brought in by a respected head coach, Mike Bellotti, and served two seasons as his offensive coordinator before taking the baton. The transition to head coach was relatively easy. Kelly kept longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti in place and made just a few staff changes, most notably adding offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, receivers coach Scott Frost and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro. They had been recruiting specifically to Kelly's offense -- revolutionary at the time -- for two years and Aliotti's defense for much longer. It was not a rebuild.

At UCLA, that's not the case. Only two holdovers -- receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty and running backs coach DeShaun Foster -- remain from former coach Jim Mora's staff, and even though the Bruins have generally recruited well in recent years, their roster was not constructed with what Kelly wants to do schematically in mind. His track record in the conference and the general excitement around his hiring artificially inflated expectations for what is now clearly a blow-it-up-and-start-again season.

It's not a rare position for a first-year coach.

"We all get how hard it is to be new, to be a new staff, putting your system in and how you do everything," Washington coach Chris Petersen said last week, according to the Seattle Times.

"Each week they're getting a little bit better. Obviously, the respect we have for Chip and his staff -- those are smart guys. They'll stick to their process and their script and those guys will continually get better."

Coincidentally, Frost, who was promoted to offensive coordinator at Oregon when Kelly departed for the NFL, is going through a similar process at Nebraska, where he's also 0-5 as a first-year coach. But while Frost has found it nearly impossible to keep any sense of anonymity in Lincoln, Kelly is hardly registering as a blip on the Los Angeles sports scene.

For Kelly, that's part of the appeal.

There is pressure, of course. From himself, from fans, from elsewhere. It's just different than in other regions in the country. Had Kelly jumped into the pressure cooker of the SEC at Florida, instead of UCLA, an 0-5 start would have led to ill-advised GoFundMe buyout campaigns and mass outrage.

In Los Angeles, outside of the core group of really invested fans, people just move on to something else.

There is a general belief in Southern California that there is little crossover between the region's college football and NFL fans, but as UCLA fights for its place in what was already a crowded sports market, it would be foolish not to at least consider how the return of the Rams and the arrival of the Chargers factor into that equation. The Bruins' average home attendance last year -- the first with two NFL teams in the market in over 20 years -- was the worst it had been in over a decade (56,044).

Since then, the market has become even more competitive. New Lakers star LeBron James lives a few miles from campus, the Dodgers are in the midst of another playoff run, the Rams have turned into a Super Bowl contender with the best offense in the league and there's even a new Major League Soccer team selling out its sparkling new stadium.

Throughout the season, Kelly has regularly balked when presented with possible explanations for why the team has struggled.

He hasn't placed blame on the team's undeniable youth -- of the 56 players who were on the field against Washington, 20 were freshmen. Only six were seniors.

It's also worth noting -- though Kelly won't -- that the teams UCLA has played are a combined 24-3. It didn't help when graduate transfer quarterback Wilton Speight, who won the starting job in training camp, went down because of an injury in the opener, forcing another of those true freshmen, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, into action.

He was a big-time recruit at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, but Thompson-Robinson didn't start at quarterback until his senior year because he was stuck behind current Ohio State backup Tate Martell. For a player with his lack of experience to be relied on so early in his college career isn't exactly ideal, but now that it's clear the Bruins won't be contending, turning back to Speight doesn't make much sense for the program's long-term plan.

Then again, Kelly didn't buy into that line of thinking when asked about it a couple of weeks ago. "It's got nothing to do with putting anybody in position for the future," Kelly said. "Everything's about winning now."

Well, not everything.

Recruiting, by definition, is about building for the future and that part of the program isn't faring any better than the team on the field. Kelly has made it clear in the past he's not a fan of the recruiting process, but the Bruins' lack of momentum on the trail is still glaring. Only eight players are committed to UCLA -- none of whom have received higher than a three-star rating from ESPN -- and while there is plenty of time for the class to recover, it's a poor indicator of what's to come.

It's certainly possible that in two years' time Kelly will have the Bruins competing for conference titles, but for now, they're on the road to irrelevancy, and with ESPN's Football Power Index calling UCLA an underdog in every game left on the schedule, that doesn't figure to change at any point this season.